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Clarification to This Article
Earlier versions of this story, including in print editions of Monday's Washington Post, was vague in referring to which political party won control of the U.S. Senate in 1994. It was the Republican Party.

How GOP could win the 10 seats needed to take back Senate

The Fix combed through the past 30 years of elections to find the campaigns that left winners and losers equally bruised.

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Monday, October 18, 2010; 11:40 AM

Since 1930, party control of the House has flipped seven times. And each time, Senate control has also switched.

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The reason is simple: Wave elections are, well, wave-y. If the voting public wants to send a message to the majority party, it tends to send it across the board, not just in a single chamber.

In 2006, for example, most pundits expected Democrats to win back the House. (They did.) But, few thought the party would gain the six seats it needed to reclaim the Senate majority; narrow victories by candidates such as James Webb (Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), however, put Democrats back in charge for the first time since they lost the chamber to the GOP in 1994.

In 15 days, that historical maxim will be put to the test. Political prognosticators - such as Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg - seem to be coalescing around the likelihood that House Democrats' 39-seat majority will fall. But will the Senate follow suit once again?

Most Senate experts - of both partisan stripes - say privately that it's unlikely. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.) acknowledged as much in an interview on "Fox News Sunday," saying that although there is a "theoretical pathway . . . I'm not predicting we're going to get back to the majority."

Of course, no one knows for sure, and predicting outcomes in an election this volatile is a fool's errand. But we at the Fix are forever dealing in hypotheticals. So, how would Republicans win the 10 seats they need to take back the Senate? Here's how:

l The first tier: Democratic-held seats in North Dakota, Indiana and Arkansas are near-certain Republican pickups. Democrats aren't even seriously contesting the open Senate seat in North Dakota, of which Gov. John Hoeven (R) is the de facto winner. And although Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) is a quality Senate candidate in Indiana, he's running in a very tough year to win an open seat in the Hoosier State. Polling consistently shows Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) behind Rep. John Boozman (R) in Arkansas. So that's plus three for Republicans.

l The second tier: Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) is in deep trouble in his reelection bid against wealthy businessman Ron Johnson. Feingold, who has spent 18 years in the Senate cultivating an outsider image, has watched as Johnson has taken the outsider mantle from him with ease. In Pennsylvania, Democrats insist they are on the comeback trail - and recent polling shows the race tightening somewhat - but former congressman Pat Toomey (R) had opened up a steady edge over Rep. Joe Sestak (D). Give Republicans both seats and they are halfway to the majority: plus five.

l The third tier: Polling in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois and West Virginia suggests each of those races is a genuine tossup; in a year in which the national winds are blowing strongly in Republicans' favor, it's not unreasonable to assume that GOP candidates in each will get just enough benefit from that breeze to win (a la Webb and Tester in 2006). That makes plus nine for Republicans - still one short of the majority.

l The fourth tier: The majority then comes down to three states in which Democrats have heavy demographic advantages: California, Connecticut and Washington. (Barack Obama carried that trio by 24, 23 and 18 percentage points, respectively.) Connecticut appears to be the weakest opportunity of the three, with polls showing state Attorney General Dick Blumenthal (D) ahead of former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon (R) by double digits. And the cost of running for office in California may well keep Barbara Boxer (D) in the Senate. That means that the race in Washington between Sen. Patty Murray (D) and former state senator Dino Rossi (R) could be the linchpin on the narrow hopes Republicans hold out for control of the chamber. Both national parties are pouring millions into the race - and will continue to do so until Election Day. Polling averages give Murray a six-point edge, and those may be the most important six points in the country for Democrats right now.

All of the above assumes that Republicans lose none of their own seats, a possibility that is becoming more likely by the day. GOP Sens. David Vitter (La.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) appear to be on relatively solid electoral footing, and the open-seat Missouri contest has moved in GOP Rep. Roy Blunt's favor. That leaves the Kentucky race between state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) and ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R) as Democrats' best and only real pickup opportunity.

The possibility of a wild card - say, Alaska, where a three-way race could create chaos - always exists and could change everything.

Ain't politics great?


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